A Federation Warp Core

A Federation Warp Core – From http://www.oliverrobinson.net at the 2002 Star Trek: The Adventure

So you’ve got your universal blueprint machine in front of you, drawn the prerequisite pentagrams, sacrificed the correct number of goats and you’ve now got your universal mover in front of you. Or in orbit – not all of these devices like being at the bottom of the gravity well.

What does it look like?

Well, there’s two major franchises I could wax lyrical about, namely the star trek matter-antimatter engines, and then the star wars fuel source… whatever that is. Fusion, I guess. But I won’t. Much.

As far as fuel supplies go, matter-antimatter is pretty awesome, if you can get enough antimatter. Regular baryonic matter is (despite it being a fraction of the known universe) relatively easy to come by, but it’s slightly more exotic twin (antimatter) is in pretty short supply, for all it is also baryonic. Perhaps at some point in the future we can learn to make the stuff – we make it now, in really, really tiny quantities – but failing some weird breakthrough, despite its zero pollution footprint, antimatter isn’t such a good idea.

Dark matter, on the other hand, is not also extremely plentiful, but appears to do odd things to normal matter. One of the prevailing theories of dark matter has it annihilating itself in a similar manner to matter and anti-matter, if so it should be relatively simple to build a dark matter engine… if we can find a way to manipulate dark matter, which, as we all know, doesn’t react to normal matter almost at all.

So we’re kind of stuck… until we look at fusion.

The less-heady alternatives to the above three (I’ll get back to fusion in a minute) are chemical rockets, ion rockets and light sails. Chemical rockets are pretty useless for a starship. They’re fine for maneuvering thrusters, but even for a jaunt as short as to Mars, they’re less than ideal. They’re heavy, they require a lot of plumbing and they’re very inefficient, for example: just to put the now out-of-commission space shuttle into earth orbit, the chemical rockets it used needed to carry 15 times that weight in fuel. To explore further than that requires a lot more.

Still, there are alternatives:

  • nuclear engines (which are essentially nuclear bombs) provide a lot of thrust, with the long-dead orion program being able to lift thousands of tonnes into space in one go… but “nuclear” scares a lot of people, plus it would honestly be relatively dirty to use often.
  • space elevators would take a long time to get to orbit, but would have the bonus of providing free energy for everyone if used to drag a coil through Earth’s magnetic field (this would have the downside of slowing Earth’s rotation, but we’re talking gigayears before it becomes a problem). They’re also looking more and more possible, with the work on carbon nanotubes lately.
  • Laser ablation engines are a cool idea. You don’t have an engine on your ship, you just have the fuel. A separate earth-based laser ignites your fuel, and you go rocketing up into space. This solves a lot of the plumbing and weight issues, and small-scale tests actually work. Pretty cool, huh?

So, you’re in space, and you step onto the deck of your spaceship. If you’re working with something relatively realistic, you may have a fusion engine at your command. Using Helium-3, which has two protons but only the one neutron, making it lighter than ordinary helium, the resulting fusion reaction produces a proton, which can be directly used to generate electricity. Helium 3 would be very useful, as its use is essentially non-polluting, and its storage is relatively simple. It’s also relatively abundant. This, my friends, would form a very useful fuel to a space-faring people.

But… we’ve got our souped-up universal mover here, so I’d rather have a different type of engine again:

A stellar-mass black hole in orbit with a companion star located about 6,000 light years from Earth.

A black hole.

Black holes are very handy little buggers, all said and done. The old way of thinking about them was as planet-gobbling monsters, but in reality they’re kind of like stars – you can orbit a black hole safely, just the same way you can orbit a star safely. They also suck. And blow.

That was a joke, a bad one, but it’s true: black holes give off radiation called Hawking radiation. The smaller they are, the wilder they are, too. The big ones are relatively passive, but little black holes are like fizzy poppers, eating whatever you throw at them and then spitting it back out as pure energy.

That’s right, if you could properly harness a black hole, you could not only have it eat all the waste you don’t want aboard ship, but it would spit out energy for you to use to power and move your starship. If the blackhole gets too big, you starve it. If it gets too small, you feed it. It would be pretty tricky –  you know, other than the sheer fact of dealing with gigatonnes worth of sucking, spitting, radioactive death – but if you mastered it, it would be a perfect energy supply and engine all rolled into one. Plus, it would give your ship a gravity gradient enabling you to not have to float about all over the place all the time.

So there you have it: if you’re building a ship this side of next millennium, you’ll probably want chemical rockets to get to orbit (at least until we can take the elevator), and once you’re up in the high frontier, you’ll probably want a fusion engine powering a ship fitted with ion rockets (which are slow to build up speed but with a top speed far higher than most anything else, so expect a bus service with ion ships constantly on the move, serviced by nippier but slower and more wasteful chemical rockets).

And then, once we really get going, we’ll move onto big boy territory, with far more impressive black hole powered alcubierre spacetime warp engines


3 responses »

  1. In the Trek canon, the Romulans did not particularly like antimatter, so they went with just what you describe – those big green Warbirds are powered by microsingularities held in magneto-gravitic fields. They actually showed one of these babies in an otherwise ridiculous (more ridiculous) episode of the Next Generation.

    Since all warp drive in Trek is of the Alcubierre flavor (he is quite open about Trek inspiring his work), We’ve gotten to see just this on Next Gen. It seemed to work well enough. Romulan Warbirds are hella powerful.

    One thing I like about Trek is how much thought is put into their tech. The joke is technobabble, the reality is inspiration for actual scientists and inventors. It’s a strange feeling for me, when I watch any ship in any Trek series swish by – I know what every damn thing on that ship does. I know why it is there, what would happen if it was missing, and how it actually (supposedly) does what it does. That is a hell of a mythos, right there, to be able to have that be so solid.

    I think that is why Trek is so inspirational. They tried to make sense. Star Wars is pathetic – the engines on half of the ships in Star Wars have machinery about six inches deep. Seriously. There is no decent explanation for how they work, other than ‘fuel’, which there is no possible room or tank for.

    But in Trek, things seriously try to make sense.

    Baryonic matter – replenished thanks to the Bussard ramjet scoops (the red domes on the nacelles? That is what they are. They are Bussard scoops. They use force fields to form cones that funnel interstellar hydrogen into them) – is converted onboard into antimatter. The antimatter is stored in magnetic vessels within the ship. The ship feeds as it goes.

    Baryonic matter and the manufactured antimatter are sent through a chamber that features the astonishing and famous ‘dilithium crystals’. The conceit is that dilithium has a four-dimensional protrusion to it, caused by quantum irregularities within it. That property is used to mix the matter and antimatter – if I recall correctly – into warp plasma… a sort of superimposed blend of matter and antimatter which also is tilted slightly ana or kata.

    This is fed to the nacelles through magnetic conduits, where the plasma is used to interact with gargantuan coils made of some super-futuristic alloy. The result is that the two – there must always be two at minimum – nacelles polarize in different hyperdimensional directions and serve the purpose of negative energy. The ship forms a static warp bubble, like the Alcubierre, and FTL travel becomes (fictional) reality. The blue glow? Cerenkov radiation, of course. The coils gradually degrade and wear out from the plasma. A thin wind of plasma dissipates heat, and it glows too.

    The glowy dish or strip on the front? Deflector. It projects a force field – a magnogravitic field – in front of the ship to part the interstellar medium and prevent collisions. It also serves to funnel matter into the Bussards.

    The little lines all over the ship? Force field wave guides. Forcefields, since they have them, are used to bolster the integrity of the ship. When they scream about the structural integrity going down, what they really mean is that those guides are not doing the job, or there isn’t power for them.

    Shields offer additional protection from dust and radiation ruining everyone’s day, and the little node-looking things on the hulls (especially on older ships) are the generators. Magnetic bubbles that protect the ship.

    The strips that run around the dish of a Fed starship, or which track in lines down the body of one… those are the tracks that phaser turrets run in. More modern Trek doesn’t have the turrets as mobile units, the entire track is one big emitter. They thought about how the technology they thought up would advance through time.

    That kind of worldbuilding FLOORS me. I cannot help but be impressed.

    At one of my Sandra’s Society of Broadcast Engineer conventions in Hollywood, we had Rick Sternbach as a special guest. He showed the engineers his design drawings for Star Trek The Next Generation (He had drawn anime girls in the margins!). He talked about how he and Okuda would meet and greet scientists to get ideas and nail down their starship designs.

    So, Trek had a nice virtuous circle going on – scientist, to designers, to show, to scientist. I thought that was pretty cool.

    And it explains the Alcubierre drive, too.

    • dmayoss says:

      Oh, you’re totally right. Star Wars is basically just swords and sorcery in space, with Little Orphan Annie turning out to be some sort of neo-Arthur, or at least some kind of Mordred figure – and man did I hate the new prequels. Ugh. I’m totally expecting the new-new sequels to suck huge floppy donkey dick through a straw too, but that’s another issue.

      Star Wars never really went big on explaining things – it’s just fusion this and light saber (or ‘lazer sword’ for a new illiterate generation, not that a sabre was ever straight…) that – but Star Trek on the other hand, whilst it does spend a good deal of time reversing the polarities on the neutron flow, actually employs real scientists to at least sketch out something with a bit more depth.

      The upshot of that is ‘real’ tech from fantasy, as in for example the Alcubierre warp drive (one exciting development of which is that it doesn’t need several thousand jupiter masses of exotic matter, just a relatively sub-jupiter amount of mass, so down from utterly impossible to merely really difficult).

      As bad as Enterprise got (and it got pretty bad), I’ll always have a soft spot for all the rest of the treks.

  2. Jona says:

    I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Very well written!

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